- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

WOOD RIVER, Ill. (AP) - Thirty-five years in the fire service have turned Chief Steve Alexander into an expert firefighter, but all good things must end, he says.

Alexander, a “lifelong Wood River boy,” retired from his post Jan. 6. Brendan McKee, a captain and 20-year veteran of the Wood River Fire Department, was promoted to take Alexander’s place.

Alexander started with the department 1981, straight out of high school. In 1986, the department brought him on full-time. He’s responded to thousands of emergency calls, coming in at all hours.

“In some ways I’m going to miss getting up in the middle of the night,” Alexander said. “In other ways, I’m not.”

In spite of long and hard work days, endless training, and the challenges of emergency response, the work has gotten into his blood.

“There’s a feeling about the job,” he said. “The thing that I like is in so many ways it’s not a routine, and every day there’s different calls. Different challenges every day, and it appealed to me, and I was hooked from a very young age.”

So hooked that as a child, he used to ride his bike to the fire station, dreaming of someday working on the inside.

Alexander found success at the department, and in 1991 was promoted to captain. He has served as fire chief since 2003.

He has seen a lot over the years - the good, the bad, the scary. One memory that sticks in his mind is the day his team was attacking a second-story blaze in downtown Wood River. They made their way to the second floor, and were about to turn a corner.

“Something told me to wait,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t go any further. I had the nozzle. I stopped right there. It was extremely hot. I saw something drop and flash, and I saw something else glowing that dropped, and all of the sudden that entire hallways - whoosh - just lit off.”

Alexander said one of the most fascinating things over the years has been watching firefighting evolve. While equipment and techniques have improved, the intensity of fires has also grown dramatically.

“The average person almost can’t fathom it,” he said. “The fire that we fight in a house today is completely different than the fire that I fought when I started. The energy produced by a fire has increased dramatically, and as a result fires burn hotter, they burn quicker, and we have less time to react.”

The reason, Alexander said, is that much of a modern home - televisions, drapes, furniture, carpeting - is petroleum-based, giving a hungry fire a buffet full of fuel. Modern homes, designed with efficiency in mind, are also much more tightly sealed to the outside world, creating other complications.

“That traps the toxic gasses, traps the heat, the smoke, everything,” Alexander said.

This creates a danger of backdraft, he explains, which occurs as oxygen levels are depleted by the fire. Oxygen makes up 21 percent of the air we breathe, but an intense fire can drain the air in a room to 10 percent oxygen. Without oxygen to fuel it, the flames calm down - they can even die out completely - but when a door is opened, or a window breaks, an explosion can result.

“When you open the door, fresh oxygen comes in, and that is a true backdraft,” Alexander said.

While backdrafts have been on the fireman’s radar for a while, a newer threat - flashover - is now gaining attention.

“What happens in flashover, you’ve got a fire in this room,” Alexander said. “As (it) burns, the radiant heat is hitting (for example) this chair. It starts off-gassing. So these vapors, everything in the room, they build up, and it will reach a critical point. So this builds up in the room. You’ve got active fire burning like crazy, you’ve got all these gasses being produced, and then all of the sudden it will light off and you will have fire from floor to ceiling.”

A firefighter in full gear caught in a flashover has only about six seconds to escape.

To compensate for worsening fires, the department has focused on quicker response times, bigger hoses, better trucks and safer turnout gear. Alexander says the new turnout gear saved the lives of three Wood River firefighters when a building they were attacking suddenly “lit off.” That’s the sort of thing that kept Alexander up at night.

“I worry about so many thing that I never used to, and that just comes with being chief,” he said. “Now you are responsible for these guys’ safety. When I was 20 years old at a fire, I was indestructible. And that’s very typical. As you get older, you realize more and more and more.”

“One thing I will say about this job,” he added, “this is a young man’s occupation, and as time progresses the strain on the body is harder and harder to deal with. Police and fire can retire earlier than a lot of people, but there is a reason for that.”

Still, Alexander is glad he put his life into the fire service, and recommends it as a career.

“It’s the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the excitement of the job,” he said, “and it’s something that I was always very proud of. We were the guys that are going in when everybody else is going out, and I took a lot of pride with that.”


Source: The (Alton) Telegraph, https://bit.ly/2iXAoFd


Information from: The Telegraph, https://www.thetelegraph.com

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